Strategies to Engage Boys in Reading (and the Girls, Too)

Getting boys engaged in reading is a hot topic among educators these days. Data from national and international assessments show that boys lag behind girls in reading and comprehension. And that’s probably not a surprise to most teachers and librarians who are challenged to help boys become proficient and enthusiastic lifelong readers.

Why does this gender gap exist? Researchers cite several reasons. On the whole, boys take longer to develop reading and writing skills, while mastery is expected at a much earlier age than ever before. Boys also tend to read less than girls, which may or may not be related to early struggles in this area. Less practice often translates into lower achievement.

In addition, the traditional definition of reading as literature (narrative) based may also contribute to inequities in reading and writing achievement. Teachers and parents may not recognize the types of material typically preferred by boys (magazines, newspapers, comic books) as reading. When reading choices are made for boys (typically by mothers or female elementary school teachers), the materials often do not reflect their preferences and interests.

So, what can a teacher do? While no single strategy is guaranteed to reach every student, the following suggestions are grounded in both brain and gender research. In fact, these strategies will engage both boys and girls in reading, writing, and discussing works from all genres.


Informational Text

Research shows that boys tend to choose informational texts, magazines, newspaper articles, graphic novels, and comic books and that they read less fiction than do girls. While narrative text plays an important role in instruction, literacy research tells us that increasing the use of informational text in the elementary grades provides comprehension benefits for all students.

Including informational text also allows teachers to integrate content areas (science, social studies) and literacy instruction. Reading in the content areas sets a clear purpose for reading, another research-based suggestion. Students can’t help but be engaged when they are reading to answer their own questions about the world around them.

Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears provides science-themed, differentiated informational text in each issue. Go to Stories for Students to see all the articles.

Literature Circles and Idea Circles

The ability to self-select reading material is intrinsically motivating. Two types of activity work well with student-selected text: literature circles and idea circles.

Literature circles are small groups of students who read, discuss, and complete activities about a common text. These groups can be formed purposefully for differentiation or emerge organically as students select their own reading material. Teachers wishing to provide some structure for the activity can limit the number of choices offered to their students.

Idea circles are a bit different. Within a small group, students each read a different text focusing on a particular topic or guiding question. For example, students in an idea circle on polar explorers might read the biography of an explorer, a fictional narrative about a polar journey, an overview of Antarctic exploration, or informational text describing the tools and technology that make exploration possible. Students are able to select text appropriate to their reading level and in a format that is personally engaging. The group members share information as they read, creating a collaborative product from their collective knowledge.

While self-selection of text and differentiation among and within small groups are valuable strategies, there are times in which a teacher must use whole-class instruction. At those times, how can a teacher keep the boys engaged?


Boys’ reading preferences show that they are often reading for a specific purpose — to master a video game, build a model, or learn how their favorite team fared over the weekend. Setting a clear purpose for reading can help boost their engagement, regardless of the text. It also helps all students attend to main ideas and can improve comprehension. One popular such method is SQ3R.


Consider a group of boys in the classroom, or on the playground. More often than not, their conversation involves an argument or competition to determine who is the fastest, strongest, or most knowledgeable. This competitive nature can lead boys to not participate in a whole-class setting, as they fear failing in front of their peers.

Providing opportunities for small group reading and discussion and ensuring success can help boys feel comfortable and encourage them to participate. Linking reading and conversation can help them see that reading can provide a valuable form of social capital. The social nature of pair or small group work also makes most activities more powerful learning opportunities for boys and girls alike.


Research tells us that the human brain responds to physical activity. We know that physical movement can aid memory, something many of us can relate to if we’ve ever paced or walked in an effort to remember. Movement makes learning more enjoyable, which also translates into better recall.

That’s good news for boys, who tend to be kinesthetic learners. Incorporating movement into reading lessons – reading in a different location or reader’s theatre – will engage all students, not just the boys. Even drawing and making models provide the physical activity needed to stimulate and engage. Finally, content area reading provides opportunities for inquiry-based science lessons that pair with the selected text.


We know that in any setting, success is the most powerful motivator. Teachers can help ensure the success of boys (and all students) in reading by differentiating text. Beyond Penguins supports teachers as they do this by providing informational texts at three grade levels and in text-only, illustrated book, and electronic book formats. Teachers can also differentiate by allowing students to respond to text orally, in writing, or by drawing.

In addition to differentiating content and product, teachers can use scaffolds such as graphic organizers and templates to support student comprehension. Modeling and think-alouds make comprehension strategies and thought processes visible and provide additional support.

Teachers may notice that while gender research does show differences between boys and girls in the area of literacy, many of the suggestions and strategies really work for all students. And isn’t that what effective teaching is all about, anyway?


Boys and Reading

Reading is for the boys (and girls)!
A WebQuest for teachers. The focus is on adolescent literacy, but the research and pedagogy are appropriate for teachers of all grades.

Guys Read
Created by author Jon Scieszka, Guys Read is a web-based literacy program that helps boys select reading materials.

Boys and Books
An article from the International Reading Association’s Reading Today magazine. It provides an overview of research about boys and reading.

Informational Text

Stories for Students
Informational text from Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears. Science-themed articles are available at three grade levels (K-1, 2-3, and 4-5) and in three formats (text-only, illustrated book, and electronic book).

Literature and Idea Circles

Literature Circles Resource Center
A wealth of information about literature circles in elementary and middle school classrooms, including the research base, sample structures, and guidelines for choosing books, discussion, and written response.

Idea Circles and Differentiated Instruction
A sample science and literacy lesson combining idea circles and differentiated instruction.

Setting a Purpose for Reading

Setting a Purpose for Reading Using Informational Text
A sample lesson plan that sets a purpose for reading informational text by turning the titles and subtitles into questions. While written as a sixth-grade lesson, teachers of upper-elementary students will find this useful as well.

A reading method that involves surveying the text and writing questions before actually reading.

Cooperative Learning

Differentiating Instruction

This article was written by Jessica Fries-Gaither. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Kimberly Lightle, Principal Investigator, with any questions about the content of this site.

Copyright February 2009 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.

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